A controversial look at the controversial subject of religion
THERE IS NO GOD
Repeat, in big red letters:
THERE IS NO GOD
Okay, I have established my position for this essay. "Religion," said Karl Marx, "is the opiate of the people." And I find myself in broad agreement with this contention.
I have no religious faith, and identify most closely with secular humanism. In fact, I find religion to be faintly ridiculous, depending, as it does, on the idea of God. For me, I can find no compelling evidence at all for the existence of any transcendent superhuman power. No omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent being who/which controls our every action. And who will punish us for our transgressions.
Why, then, does religion continue to play such a key role in the lives of so many? In my opinion (and this is wholly an opinion piece) it is based on the simple fear of what happens to us after we die. The Abrahamic faiths tell of judgement, Hindus see a cycle of recurring rebirth. Here, I must confess, I start to veer off into the area of psychology, which, in several respects is closely allied to religion.
For me, once my body ceases to operate, there will be nothing, which presents no horrors for me, although I know many people find such an idea difficult to deal with. Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher, said, "After your death you shall be what you were before you were born." I can't disagree, although I do feel a little sad if n years of experience need to disappear down the gurgler of time.
None of what I say, of course, is capable of objective proof. There is no evidence for the non-existence of God, although proving a negative is, in any case, notoriously difficult. Nor is there evidence of his/its existence, and it is here believers play what they believe is their trump card. “You must have faith,” they say, “faith is the evidence of things unseen.” But to my mind, this is a nonsense. Dan Barker says, “Faith is a cop-out. If the only way you can accept an assertion is by faith, then you are conceding that it can’t be taken on its own merits.”
Okay, let’s take the idea of God, as conceived within Christianity, on its own merits, if we can. In the Biblical book of Genesis, we are told, at Chapter 1 Verse 27, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” This leads to two uncomfortable conclusions. Firstly, God exists in human form, as humans are believed to exist in the form of God. Secondly that there is some element of the hermaphrodite in the God thus portrayed. To my way of thinking, it seems much more likely that man created God in his own image. In ancient cultures this was a necessity to help explain the seemingly unpredictable processes of nature.
Then we are faced with the almost insoluble difficulty of the claim, “God is love”. Yet in his book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins comments, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
It is hard to argue against this, although the standard religious defence makes the peoples against whom God acted evil in themselves. So, two wrongs are deemed to make a right, and the end justifies the means? Let’s just take one example, the destruction of the city of Jericho as recorded in the Book of Joshua. Incidentally, modern excavations suggest there is very little truth in the biblical account. However, according to the Book of Joshua, the Israelites marched seven times around the walls of Jericho, then the priests blew their ram’s horns, the Israelites raised a great shout, and the walls of the city fell. Following God's law the Israelites took no slaves or plunder but slaughtered every man, woman and child in Jericho.
The claim is, the people of Jericho were evil and deserved their fate as willed by God. Maybe, but so were Nazi Germans, Imperial Japanese, Stalinist Russians and the Khmer Rouge, but I’m not aware of God intervening to stop their depradations. And if the argument is that “God was on our side”, did he support the firebombing of Dresden or nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
The problem of the existence of evil, and, more importantly, bad things happening, capriciously, to basically good people occupies much theological discussion, and I have never seen a compelling answer to these problems.
Taken to an extreme, how is it possible for so many thousands of innocent babies and children die each day from malnutrition, inadequate shelter, preventable disease, violence and so on? And the omnipotent God does nothing to prevent this. But a psychopathic mass murderer can make a deathbed conversion to the ways of Christianity, and he will be accepted into heaven.
There seem to be two rationalisations by believers for this state of affairs. Firstly, the “original sin” argument, i.e. all mankind is fundamentally wicked as they have all descended from Adam and Eve who tasted of the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Thus, every one of their descendants is tainted. See the Epistle of St Paul to the Romans, Chapter 5 Verse 12, “Wherefore as by one man sin entered into the world and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men for that all have sinned.” All are tainted by sin regardless of their own actions, regardless of their youth and consequent inability to sin, all are condemned.
I simply cannot accept it as any rational way to view the world as it is. Not as some would want it to be.
The second rationalisation for bad things happening to good people is we simply cannot know the mind of God and must accept his overarching wisdom and knowledge. To me, this is a monumental cop-out. The belief in a capricious God who does things and allows things to happen for reasons that are beyond human understanding is a nonsense. Far better, surely to accept, to put it crudely, “shit happens” – and the inevitable tag, “get over it.” And, no, it’s not easy to accept horrible and destructive events as random happenings. But, as an Australian Prime Minister once said, “Life wasn’t meant to be easy.” He was pilloried for saying it, but he wasn’t wrong.
Reverting briefly to the God issue, the so-called paramountcy of the Christian God, who allowed his son to be nailed to a piece of wood really pales into insignificance in the context of all the other deities who either are or were worshipped by humanity. The savage Viking gods, several of whom gave their names to days of our week. The Greek pantheon and the numerous Roman gods, to say nothing of those of the Incas, Toltecs and Aztecs. Amun, Anubis, Bast, Isis and Osiris et al, sacred to the ancient Egyptians, the Japanese Izanagi, Hachiman and Uzume. A popular idea suggests there are 330 million Hindu deities, to mention nothing of the many deities held sacred in the various animist religions.
Many myths are or have been held sacred by various peoples, but they are no more than myths. These myths serve two basic purposes, to explain the beginning of all things and to enlighten their followers about what happens after death. None are in any tangible, operational or rational sense omnipotent, omniscient of omnipresent.
In fact, there are parallels with the Santa Claus myth. Many parents encourage their children to believe in the reality of the jolly old man with the long white beard and red coat, but as they get older, it becomes apparent there is no Santa. How is it, then, that God, with no more objective reality than Santa, should continue to be held as an intimate aspect of our lives.
On this subject, I’d like to quote someone I regard as one of the great thinkers of the Twentieth century, Bertrand Russell:
“If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”
I’d also like to say a few words on the subject of “me”. Not for any particularly conceited reason, but because it directly affects my view of death and, as such, of religion. In fact, I shall not die for there is no “me” to pass on.
“Right from the start of the process of perception, the sensory information is transformed, processed and stored as connection strengths between neurons, in ways that result in successful behaviour. ... There is no ultimate central place, no little man sitting in the middle and looking out, no little person controlling the actions of the body. There is only a system building models. ...
The idea is that nerve cells are connected up into multilayered networks in which the strengths of the connections between the cells change in response to learning. ...
I think our brains simply build models of us in the world and that is what makes our “reality”. Reality is simply a vast set of mental models. ...
“I” am no more and no less than a mental model.”
(‘Dying to Live – Near Death Experiences’ by Susan Blackmore, Prometheus Books (1993) pages 158, 159.)
For this reason, when my system fails and I “die”, the effect is for the neural networks to cease operating and, if I may put it this way, the light goes out. No immortal soul, no post-mortem judgement, no God.
I’d like to finish this diatribe with two quotations, neither of which is directly religious. In my opinion, however, they both highlight directions for me, and for anyone prepared to take them to heart, ways in which life can be made tolerable, and death less than terrifying. The first is by the English author, Stan Barstow in his novel, “The Right True End”:
“If this life is all any of us have got, and that it time and again appears senseless to the point of lunacy, then the only choice is to get out and take it by the short hairs and make it sing something at least resembling our tune.”
The second is anonymous:
“The world owes you nothing. And if you think differently, you’re in for a lifetime of disappointment and misery.”